It came as no surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to the lead-up to tomorrow’s initial (official) 2024 Republican presidential candidates’ debate (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Fox
News at 9’oclock Eastern Daylight Time) that former president Donald Trump announced on Sunday he won’t be in the building when the cameras go live.
Or, thinking about it another way, Trump’s aura will be all over the large room, but he won’t be there physically. These are strange times, indeed.
Defiant almost up until the 48-hour “deadline” to commit to the debate, Trump, again, more-or-less reiterated in his social media post that to participate would be beneath him, his reason being that his polling margin over the group of not-Trump candidates is so large and seemingly insurmountable that he wouldn’t dream of providing an opening for the political ankle-biters to establish themselves as legitimate contenders to his popular supremacy.
In doing so, Trump was being consistent and inconsistent at the same time. But what else would you expect from Donald Trump? In an article titled “Trump says he doesn’t plan to do primary debates, period”, Tom Howell Jr. reported at The Washington Times yesterday:
“Former President Donald Trump is signaling he might not do any primary election debates — plural — after he skips the first debate on Wednesday in Milwaukee. Mr. Trump, writing on Truth Social, pointed to his ‘legendary’ poll numbers, including a nearly 50-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican considered his most significant threat in the 2024 presidential primary.
“’The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had, with Energy Independence, Strong Borders & Military, Biggest EVER Tax & Regulation Cuts, No Inflation, Strongest Economy in History, & much more,’ Mr. Trump wrote late Sunday. ‘I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!’ For weeks, Mr. Trump signaled he did not want to do the first debate. He says he would face bias from moderators and unnecessarily risk his front-runner status...
“Mr. Trump plans to counter-program the first debate by sitting for an interview with conservative host Tucker Carlson.”
Thus, even in announcing something highly predictable – skipping the first debate – Trump found a way to make headlines anyway. By stating outright that he won’t be showing up at any of the glitter-fests (sometimes known as presidential primary debates), Trump is entering new territory when it comes to campaigning for a major party’s nomination.
Here’s thinking that if his numbers sink to more realistic levels – such as around forty-percent, which is where they were initially before the Democrats’ all-out witch hunts produced legal jeopardy for the previous president – that Trump could change his mind about debating. In the future. If there’re indications from the electorate that his absence with the others on stage is somehow “arrogant” or signals weakness, Trump will be back faster than the futuristic cyborg (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) returning to destroy the police station in the first movie in “The Terminator” series.
It's also no secret that Trump enjoys keeping everyone in suspense, which in turn generates more headlines for him because news talkers are compelled to spend column space and airtime going back-and-forth on what they think Trump will do. It’s the eternal game of cat and mouse the lifelong real estate developer and reality TV star brought to politics when he rode down the Trump Tower escalator in 2015.
Politics has never been boring since. But it’s also got a lot of conservatives tired of the gamesmanship, wishing Trump would just come right out and say what he’s going to do rather than continuing to use silly nicknames like “DeSanctimonious” to describe a party compatriot who’s revolutionized the GOP from the inside without bowing to the party establishment.
The lack of guidance or direction from the GOP leadership – looking at you, Ronna Romney McDaniel – isn’t helping things. It’s certainly understandable that the higher-ups would want a “normal” primary progression, but requiring participants to sign a “loyalty pledge” out of fear that Trump would sabotage the process was ill-considered at best and stupid at worst, basically daring the already ego-driven man to thumb his nose at the clueless lot while essentially taunting them – “I can do what I want in this race, because I’ve got half the voters (or more) in my corner.”
Predictably, Trump’s Republican rivals, when word of Trump’s decision came out, suggested that the frontrunner was cowardly and “chicken” for not going to Milwaukee. Apprehensive, perhaps, but “chicken”? It seems clear Trump gave much greater thought to showing up than he let on, trying to figure a way to turn the Fox program to his advantage, and couldn’t find one. Trump is basically correct – why would he open himself up to being questioned by Asa Hutchinson who hardly anyone knows… or wants to know once they’ve heard about what the Arkansan believes. The fact that Trump doesn’t plan to take tomorrow night off and leave the spotlight to his rivals alone is vintage Trump. The fact he’s doing something arguably more attention grabbing – appearing with conservative superstar Tucker Carlson – should be interpreted as a stroke of genius. The New York Times reported that the talk with Tucker will be pre-recorded, but that doesn’t mean much in the big scheme of things.
You may recall that, not all that long ago, it was suggested that Carlson himself narrate a candidate forum (for Fox News or otherwise) so as to ensure the rivals were asked pointed and relevant questions by the host who always looks at his interview subjects with that piercing glare of his. But now that Fox has fired Tucker and the host is out on his own, Carlson is perhaps getting the last laugh here. And viewers will know that Tucker doesn’t tiptoe around anyone, so Trump will be pressed on real issues, most likely including his incessant boasts about being unbeatable by anyone in either party.
Since it appears as though electability is the biggest political conundrum hanging over Trump’s head, let’s hope we get some real answers in place of the usual entertaining but not-that-helpful braggadocio.
The biggest mystery surrounding the Trump/Tucker sideshow is, will Republican voters dump the Fox debate for Tucker and Trump? There’s little doubt the hardcore Trump backers who’ve already made up their minds will do so. But there will be some portion of the party electorate motivated through sure curiosity to tune in and see what the others have to say, or simply gather their first impressions of several of the candidates on the stage.
Plus, the Trump/Tucker interview doesn’t have to be viewed live. Then again, neither does the Fox debate. How many will be taking the time to look at both? In other debate news, by now polling close to DeSantis in New Hampshire, Chris Christie certainly seems to be convincing a good chunk of the “anyone but Trump” voters to switch to his side, with the group’s loyalty somewhat malleable and open to whomever they collectively believe has the best chance to beat Trump. The former New Jersey governor and fierce Trump critic also likely claims a large slice of the “I hate Trump” GOP electorate, which, if you think about it, is distinct from the “anyone but Trump” faction, since the “anyone but Trump” folks might not hate the two-time GOP nominee but just don’t think he can win. Conservative bomb-thrower Kurt Schlichter typifies this type of thinker.
I know, it’s complicated.
Christie’s unlikely ascendance in New Hampshire could have far-reaching effects on the 2024 GOP race since a second-place finish in the small state would rouse the same groups (introduced in the previous paragraph) in other early voting states to give the rotund anti-Trump fire breather more consideration – most probably at the expense of Gov. Ron DeSantis and possibly Vivek Ramaswamy. I don’t see much of a path for either Nikki Haley or Senator Tim Scott if Christie finishes runner-up in New Hampshire, since the “Hate Trump” clique and “anyone but Trump” pack will have moved on by the time South Carolina rolls around.
Or, it’s entirely possible that after Iowa and New Hampshire that the also-rans, which will probably include Haley and Scott, will consolidate either behind DeSantis, Christie or Ramaswamy, depending on order of finish in the Granite State. Or, they could read the writing on the wall and simply endorse almost-certain winner Trump in a “unity” move.
Which would basically leave Trump and Christie and possibly one or two hangers-on. By the time Nevada and South Carolina vote it should be clear who’s a contender and who’s not. I highly doubt Chris Christie is a contender – by virtue of his intense Trump hate he’s not palatable to Trump’s voters. So it’s very possible, if not likely, that Christie would remain in the race to the end and serve as a “protest” candidate a la John Kasich in 2016. This would guarantee that the Republican Party would remain divided all the way to the convention – and possibly beyond.
No doubt many conservatives harbor misgivings about Fox News hosting the debate in the first place, the memories still fresh on what the network’s management did to Tucker. And the program “moderators” – Brett Baier and Martha MacCallum – aren’t exactly renowned for their Trump tolerance, both being harshly critical of the former president on January 6, almost to the point of excess. And people remember.
Although Donald Trump’s “I’m not debating” announcement wasn’t unanticipated, it’s still disappointing to many, many conservatives who’ve hoped a tug-of-war over issues and solutions would supplant some of the frontrunner’s social media jabs and reluctance to engage over real ideas rather than impugning his rivals’ character. There may be other chances. For now, let’s hear from both sides on different platforms.
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